The Spider in Its High-Tech Web


How did the Spider get the foolish Fly? By flattery:

The Spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly Fly would soon come back again;
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the Fly.
then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing,
“Come hither, hither, pretty Fly, with the pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple, there’s a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are as dull as lead.”

The spider I am thinking of had an ever better bait: promising us we would become like gods; something people have never been able to resist. What happened instead is that the spider has sucked all the juice out of us, making us hollow shells, incapable of caring for ourselves – and that, dear children is what life is all about: being ourselves.

The Web, or the Internet, is the capping achievement of the high-tech world. Nothing like it has ever been seen before, and nothing has been as entrancing. I say this even as I am using it to write this post. It has been a blessing to me, keeping me in touch with the rest of the world – but I can see what is in back of its mind: the enslavement of mankind – making us do its will.

In offices all over the world people are working their butts off – serving it, destroying themselves – and loving every minute of it. The foolish fly was wise by comparison – but the end result is much the same. Except instead of one dead fly we will have the death of humanity – the Big Bang in reverse.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. Like the child that sees the Emperor without his clothes, I am just pointing my finger at what is. Only what I am pointing at is much worse – so worse in fact, nobody wants to look at it.

What is it? It is technological development gone out of control. We have become so entranced by all the new stuff out there, we have lost touch with what is in here. We have won a few toys, but lost our souls. Sold our heritage for a mess of pottage.

At the same time, I am convinced the process of getting all this new stuff has made us capable of getting it under control. We have powerful new tools we didn’t have before – including new ways of thinking about the world – a new mind space has been created – it is only missing one thing: us.

When I was back in Silicon Valley, I could see important new things were going on. Tools were becoming available to help companies make better software – the all-important industry I was in. To my amazement, the software engineers didn’t want to use them, and insisted on continuing to screw things up! What was going on here?

They were doing something natural to humans: plodding down the same old road, wearing blinders. And something else: doing what they were told to do – picking up subtle clues from the powers that be: “continue to mess things up – and don’t dare step out of line!” And so they continued, like horses in a harness: plod, plod plod – with nose-bags over their noses.

“I have a dream,” as Martin Luther King said: maybe that all that is needed is something to break them out of their trance.

Maybe it will happen like this: they will plod right over the edge of a cliff, fall to the bottom, pick themselves up, and wake up.

At least I can dream.

I Don’t Wanna Know

This is the new battle cry of the American Republic – or at least of Americans themselves. They are in complete information denial and would rather be dead than be knowledgeable about anything. The end of the world is staring them right in the face – and I think they rather like the idea.

What brought this on? An article in the New York Review entitled Is There Life in Health Care Reform? I noticed it was a long article, developed instant fatigue, and didn’t even look at it. This morning, with a full pot of coffee to back me up, I gave it another look. I was glad I did. I am not dead, even if my native country is.

Allow me to quote from the article, which you can read online for yourself:

Though Obama had in fact achieved more than any recent president in his first year in office, and his personal popularity remained relatively high, his approval rating was falling fast, and he was widely seen as a failing president. Obama was getting more criticism than credit for his actions to keep the economy from falling into a depression—a subject that hadn’t come up in the campaign—and in his State of the Union address in late January he distanced himself as far as possible from the bank bailout. (“I hated it. You hated it.”) Still, White House aides understood that—”not without reason,” one adviser told me—much of the public saw the Obama administration, as the saying went, as more concerned about Wall Street than Main Street.

Some of Obama’s achievements were simply lost in all the hubbub over the health care bill. Some were simply confused with one other (many thought the stimulus bill and the bailouts were the same thing). Obama was proving at risk of fitting that most dangerous of political descriptions: a disappointment. His campaign aides had portrayed him as a “transformational figure” who would have a vast following ready to march for him, helping him pass his legislation. But this following didn’t materialize once he came to office, in part because people who had set aside time to help him win the presidency had other things to do with their lives, in part because the Obama administration has been neither well organized nor effective at summoning the predicted following for his programs. Obama seemed to have lost his magic.

There’s no question that the health care bill was sinking in popularity before the Massachusetts vote (but it was not, as Brown said recently on ABC’s This Week, “on its last legs”). The interesting question is why it was losing support. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll shortly before the Massachusetts election, only 33 percent of the public approved of Obama’s health care plan. Yet this same poll indicated that 40 percent of the respondents wanted reform efforts to do more, not less. My own view is that it was their impression of what happened as much as what actually was going on that caused so many people to turn against it. The process became confused with the substance (my italics). The analogy between legislating with sausage-making fits here particularly well—”People who love sausage should never see it made.” The legislating on the health care bill was widely followed in the media; people saw the sausage being made.

I think this gives the American public too much credit. They (as guided by the Media) are simply unable to think about anything the least bit complicated.

The Philosophical Baby

New York Review: The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik

“Children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens,” writes Gopnik in The Philosophical Baby, a tour through the recent findings of cognitive science about the minds of young children.

Gopnik offers the captivating idea that children are more conscious than adults but also less unconscious, because they have fewer automatic behaviors.

This heightened state of absorption is emblematic of what Gopnik calls “the evolutionary division of labor between children and adults.” In this collaboration, the child’s protracted period of immaturity is indulged because it allows him to perform uninhibitedly the sorts of experiments that will eventually enable the more plodding and deliberate adult to alter—or at least to manipulate—the reality of his world.

Plain Talk about Latin America

I have never been too impressed with Oscar Arias, the Tico president who negotiated the Nicaragua peace settlement, and lately tried to negotiate an end to the military coup in Honduras. But after reading what he said at a the Latin American and Caribbean Conference (CALC) in the Feb. 26 Tico Times, I changed my mind. His Northern education has made him a different kind of Latino, as it has many Latino leaders. Costa Rica’s progress has been caused by progressive social ideas imported from the North – which now, however, are waning. I quote:

The truth is that our region has advanced little in the last few decades. In some areas, it has resolutely gone backwards.

He warned fellow heads of state not to blame others for Latin America’s problems, saying “Not Spanish colonialism, or a lack or resources, or United States hegemony or any other theory of eternal victimization in Latin America can be held accountable for the region’s shortcomings.”

The editorial section amplifies on his speech:

Most of Aria’s harshest criticisms were clearly aimed at the ALBA bloc of nations, led by Venezuela and Cuba, but including Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Aria accused them of erasing the lines – essential to constitution, democratic rule of law – between a nation’s rulers, political parties, and the state.

In Costa Rica, he fingered government bureaucrats who avoid making decisions; and a business class who demand that the government perform, but who resist paying their fair share of taxes.

A breath of fresh air.

Computer-Generated Music

Triumph of the Cyborg Composer

People have been been messing with this for years; professors of music were doing it back when I was in college, over fifty years ago. I didn’t like the stuff. Now David Cope is making stuff I do like. Sample some of it for yourself on the embedded QuickTime tracks.

And then sample some of the writing about it. He is doing something new: composing music interactively with a computer program he built himself – much as Chopin used the piano to compose his.

Strangely enough, this is making some people mad as hell. Read about it for yourself.

We Have Been Captured by a CAS

Man has always been subject to his beliefs, ideas, and various passions. This is both good and bad – but inevitable: that is just the way we are. But now we have met up with something more than our equal: a CAS (Complex Adaptive System), that has incorporated us into it.  We have been captured by a system more powerful than us – and made to serve it.

This may strike you as pure poppy-cock – not worthy of further thought, but do not dismiss me lightly, I think I am on to something.

This process has been going on ever since the late 19 Century – with the result that things are now in control. This is not a new idea: it has been obvious to many. But we had no idea of what these things were – or most importantly: how they were organized.

We had no idea they could organize themselves – a startling new idea made clear by a whole new field of inquiry that studies Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). What these scientists have discovered is far more important than the discovery of sub-atomic particles, interesting as this is (at least to them). It is a discovery of how much of the universe works: as complex systems composed of many diverse, interrelated agents that are constantly evolving.

Before, scientists intuited this was the case, but complexity was not something they wanted to tackle: they didn’t have the tools for the job – especially the intellectual tools. And they were not used to the broad, interdisciplinary cooperation that is required to tackle a subject this huge. Now they, the cream of the crop, are hard at work on at – notably at the Santa Fe Institute – which you will be hearing about later, if you have your ear to the ground.

What is blocking the advancement of mankind into this new frontier? Mankind itself, which has been so successful in adapting to this new system, that it has eliminated itself from the equation.

This is nothing new, men have always been adept at adopting themselves to power structures, usually hierarchical ones. And the lengths they will go to serve them has always been amazing. Man has always adapted itself to power, but this power was always man-made. But this power is not man-made: it comes from without, from a CAS.

I know this is too much for you to grasp, so let’s back off for a moment and look at entirely man-made CASs – such as the various group identities we have always lived under. We have usually believed these were formed by powerful supernatural forces – such as the gods – when it was clear to any objective observer that we had made these ourselves. To use the language of Complexity: these organizations emerged from human life automatically. This is one of the characteristics of CASs – a truly fascinating subject: they automatically self-organize themselves into more complex structures.

Life itself is the prime example: atoms organized themselves into molecules, which organized themselves into cells, which organized themselves into organisms, etc. There was no outside intelligence doing this – they just did it themselves, out of their own internal intelligence. But the result was something amazing.

But this was nothing: beginning in the late 19th Century, man was adding to the mix, making powerful things at an ever accelerating pace. And these things have taken over – making as one of their objectives the elimination of the people who made them. And they have succeeded. We have become reproductive organs and power structures (engines) for them.

Here again, I have probably gotten ahead of you; let me back up again. Consider the effect of the automobile on America, the nation that has most successfully adapted to them. I was amazed the last time I was there by all the new super-highways: the  most expensive structures ever built by man – but overloaded as soon at they are built, by all the people eager to use their cars on them – who come flocking in from everywhere.

In short, we have turned ourselves over the the automobile – completely – which continues to demand more. We don’t see this, we only see ourselves enhanced by all this steel and rubber in motion – but it doesn’t take a genius to see what is really going on: the automobile is using us to its advantage. We are serving it.

Stepping back a notch, and getting the larger view: things have organized themselves into systems where we are subordinate players. We are so busy serving them we don’t have time for ourselves – exactly what they want.

And people think this is wonderful. We visited with a relative back in the Midwest the last time I was back home. They live on a lovely farm just outside a small town. We asked them what they did for exercise. Their answer surprised us: they drive in their new car to the nearest large town, about 30 miles away, on a superhighway, and then walk around in its air-conditioned shopping center!

Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures

IT Conversations: Podcast

Dr. Moira Gunn sits down with author and CEO, Dan Roam, to learn how he is teaching people to solve complex problems using simple pictures, from the pages of his new book, Unfolding the Napkin … the Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures.

I am impressed by this. Especially his Healthcare Napkins All presentation. Everyone agrees it is the best explanation there is.

Check it out, it will make a believer of you.